Using Digital Activities in the Classroom – Part 1 of 5

One of the many services that Salem State’s Writing Intensive Curriculum (WIC) program offers to the university community is the hosting of regular brown bag sessions in which faculty and graduate students from across the disciplines come together in the WIC room to host a facilitated discussion around some topic related to interdisciplinary writing. This past week I had the fun and exciting opportunity to facilitate one of these brown bags on a subject near and dear to my heart: the use of digital activities to teach writing in the classroom! A regular feature on my blog, my passion for building digital literacies in my students is no secret (see my post on digital vocabulary building tools, or this one on digital writing assignment ideas, or even this post defending the academic value of digital writing. I could go on, but I have to stop myself somewhere). Given my preexisting enthusiasm for the topic, the preparation for this brown bag was 100% unfiltered fun for me.

Once we were all gathered around the WIC conference table, instead of spending too much time on the theoretical defense of digital writing in the classroom, I pointed brown bag participants to my article in the most recent WIC Newsletter (where I address this in more depth) and moved us right on to the practical portion of the discussion. Let me just say that, when you get a group of experienced, dedicated, and smart educators in a room to discuss creative and practical ways to bring digital writing into their classrooms, very good things happen.

The conversation that followed was generative and full of insight as professors shared their experiences, concerns, struggles, and successes with using different digital activities and tools in their lessons. As educators, but also lifelong students ourselves, we were able to get specific in our exploration of the possibilities surrounding classroom blogs, wikis, Pinterest word walls, and Storify.

The discussions held during this brown bag and the specific tools explored will be the basis for my next blog series. Over the next 4 posts, I will be addressing each of the individual tools featured in our time together last week, spending some time on the individual affordances of each tool as well as some potential assignments to take advantage of what each tool has to offer. As always when it comes to thinking and writing on digital literacies, I can’t wait to get started!


The Bulletin Board Passion Continues

I have mentioned my deep passion for bulletin boards in a prior post. Although I recognize that this blog’s current ratio of frivolous posts to posts containing some legitimately scholarly or professional content is a little high, I spent yesterday afternoon creating my most recent board and I couldn’t quite refrain from sharing it!

My cooperating teacher at Newburyport High School, Deb Szabo, is heavily involved in the school’s literary scene, leading their slam poetry team, coordinating their annual literary journal, promoting various writing competitions and workshops, and teaching their creative writing elective. To help her facilitate these diverse activities, she was given the use of a massive bulletin board in the school’s front foyer. This bulletin board, The Writer’s Block, was the victim of my undivided attention for a borderline obscene number of hours yesterday. Behold!

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That small, blonde lady in the last photo is my mum, who I’ve blogged about before and who volunteered as my bulletin board buddy yesterday afternoon. My number one bulletin boarding tip is to always board with a buddy! It makes for the best boards.


Thanks, mum!


Tricks of the Trade: A Digital Planbook

I’ve completed week three of student teaching at Newburyport High, and I’m wholeheartedly embracing my sleepless life of paper correcting and lesson designing. As my hours of sleep decline, however, so does my ability to keep my lesson plans straight. This is where my new lifesaving teacher tool comes in. Planbook.

I learned of this fantastic teacher tool from Newburyport High’s much loved and flawlessly organized English teacher, Wendy Crofts. Planbook is an online lesson planner that allows you to map out your days by lesson or period. Not only can you rearrange, delete, or add lessons to a schedule, you can also share the schedule with other teachers or a substitute. Each lesson module features several tabs, including fields for summarizing your lesson, listing homework, making notes to yourself or to a sub, and selecting state standards from a dropdown menu! See the screenshot from one of my lesson modules below:

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Below is a screenshot of my still fairly disorganized Planbook for the past week. The snow day threw a real monkey wrench in the plans, but, with Planbook, I can drag and drop lessons, so I was able to shift the schedule around with minimal mess.

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Planbook does charge a minimal $12 a year, but that seems supremely reasonable to me. Based on my internet meanderings, it seems like there are a few different sites out there that provide similar services, including

I haven’t had the chance to test drive any of these other programs; however, I can’t imagine I’ll ever stray from my new long-term relationship with Planbook. Till death do us part, Planbook.

Bulletin Boards: My True Passion

People go into teaching for all kinds of reasons. Some do it for the love of the kids, the camaraderie with other educators, or the summer vacations. My reasons for entering this profession are complex and numerous; however, if I’m being honest in my self-reflection, there’s a chance I’m largely in it for the bulletin boards.

I love making bulletin boards. So very much. Fortunately, I think I am finally entering the phase in my career where the opportunities for bulletin boarding are starting to crop up regularly. And I have never been more ready.

I will almost definitely be sharing most of my bulletin board creations on this blog, so I would like to set the precedent for that trend by posting a few photos of my most recent board: SSU’s Writing Intensive Curriculum program board.

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Here’s hoping that the world has many more bulletin boards needing my imminent attention!

Getting Practical: The First Few Minutes

In a recent post, I spent some time reflecting and gathering insight from professionals on the importance of the first few minutes of a class period. The overall theme of that post was the idea that, with high school students’ engagement at an apparently dismal low and with research suggesting that students decide whether or not they will participate in the class within the first few minutes of the period, educators have a golden window of opportunity at the very beginning of each class to grab interest and make an impression. Just like a master writer carefully crafts her opening line, a skilled teacher has to be strategic about her opening move in the classroom!

My goal with this blog post is to explore some practical ideas for classroom openers that might set the tone for active and engaged learning. The concept behind what I am saying sounds lovely; however, I am very familiar with the electric and somewhat manic atmosphere that marks the transition between high school classes. Bells ring, boots scuffle, laughs and chatter fill the halls. I have around 4 minutes to get my life together in time for the next group of students, most of whom will most likely not automatically go to their seats and sit there silently waiting for my next move. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a few of what I think are achievable, but effective ideas to wrangle student interest in the first few minutes of a classroom period. These ideas are some combination of my own ideas and ideas found in articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education and Edutopia.

  • Start with a question. But not a boring one. You can have it projected or written on the board as students come in. Good questions are applicable, relevant, and beg to be discussed. The question can be discussed at the beginning of class, at the end of class, or both to demonstrate development of thought. Edutopia’s Richard Curwin proposes the following question as an example: “If Hamlet were a sitcom, what would be a better name for it?”
  • Review the prior class. Spend a few minutes asking students to recall what happened the last time you met. Have students remind you what the most important points were. Not only does this prompt students to reach back into their memories and focus, it also allows you to get a feel for what they did and did not retain.
  • Shamelessly employ teasers. There is a reason that cheesy teasers are still used in advertising and commercials: because they are effective! Market your topic. Phrases like “Coming up next…” and “You won’t believe that…” are all irresistably attention grabbing. Curwin gives the following example: “Coming up next, we’re going to discuss why some people think Shakespeare is sexier than Madonna.” The one caveat to this strategy is that your class has to deliver! If you promise to discuss the sexiness of Shakespeare vs. Madonna, you actually have to do so, otherwise your teasers will cease to be effective!
  • Ask students to free-write. Low-stakes writing assignments are an easy and comfortable way for students to begin preparing to think about what you plan to teach that day. This can just be a quick journal entry or reflection. If every student has taken a few minutes to write on the topic of your lesson, then every student has engaged on some level with the subject before beginning the intellectual heavy lifting.

While these ideas I have suggested above can be adapted and applied in a variety of ways, the most important point to keep in mind when deciding how to use them is one made in Curwin’s article. Whenever possible, open with something you are passionate about. Students have an uncanny ability to sense enthusiasm levels. They just know when you’re excited about a topic and when you really aren’t. Choose something you love and build a class opening around that! In Curwin’s words, “energy is contagious.”